September 20, 2004

September 20, 2004 | Commentary on Asia

End U.S. Foot-Dragging on Taiwan Sale

Should the United States treat Taiwan like any other friendly or allied country?

This question has become more critical recently as U.S. President George W. Bush's administration has delayed issuing a routine congressional notification of arms sales to Taipei. There is growing fear that Chinese pressure is taking a toll, and every hint of U.S. reluctance only further emboldens Beijing.

When Bush came to office, his administration seemed to support democratic Taiwan against the threats of China. In April 2001, after China had held a U.S. Navy reconnaissance aircraft hostage for nearly two weeks, the United States offered Taiwan $24 billion in advanced weapons and invited Taiwan's president to visit New York and Houston with all the trappings of a head of state.

It certainly got the attention of China, which toned down its rhetoric, fearing Bush had come to see it as America's primary enemy in the new century.

But in the past three years, Washington's enthusiasm for democratic Taiwan has waned. Beijing's hard-liners, under the spiritual guidance of military strongman Jiang Zemin and his chief lieutenant, Vice President Zeng Qinghong, have convinced Washington that China is now indispensable in the North Korean nuclear conundrum (although Beijing has evinced lackluster support for the War on Terror).

Now, every time a Chinese leader meets a U.S. figure, he breathes fire on Taiwan.

Worse, lower-level U.S. bureaucrats have become alarmed at Taiwan's increasing demands for an international identity separate from China. Leaders in Taipei no longer want their country to be called the Republic of China, but simply "Taiwan."

These officials convinced their superiors in Washington that Taiwan President Chen Shui-bian was stirring the embers of "independence" and other "anti-Chinese" sentiments purely for his own political gain. Such moves, U.S. officials opined, would get the United States involved in a war in the Taiwan Strait and Chen had to be slapped down, and lose his bid for re-election.

What is new is China's increasingly ominous threat of war against Taiwan. Chinese leaders say they are looking at a new unification law, one version of which has been publicized by a Chinese professor and mandates a bombing of the Taiwan-held offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu that "would not be limited to conventional weapons."

When Washington backs away from Taipei, Beijing takes it as evidence their hard line is working. It now appears that the State Department and the White House are responding to Beijing's pressure by holding back on informal notifications to Congress of proposed defense sales to Taiwan.

The current $18 billion package includes eight diesel-electric submarines, 12 P-3 Orion anti-submarine warfare aircraft, and six Patriot anti-missile batteries with 365 interceptors. All were approved in the White House's April 2001 announcement.

The U.S. government never delays informal congressional notifications for sales to any other friendly or allied country. In fact, it has never delayed informal notifications of Taiwan sales. It is puzzling why it is happening now.

If the intent is to avoid the wrath of the People's Republic at election time, it is misguided. The informal notifications should go to Congress, as is routine, when the Pentagon sends Letters of Offer and Acceptance (LOAs) to Taiwan for signature, which should be quite soon. Informal notifications can be confidential and Beijing won't hear of them until after Nov. 2.

While Taiwan's legislature has not yet passed a budget to pay for the purchase, the LOAs do not depend on the purchasing country's imminent commitment to procure the systems. That is why the congressional notification of LOAs are informal. And Taiwan's legislature appears likely to pass the special defense procurement budget by the end of October.

State and Defense Department officials have insisted to me they are not cowed by the prospect of Chinese hysteria. Rather, they are peeved that Taiwan has taken so long to make up its collective mind about the defense procurements. One can understand a certain level of White House frustration with Taiwan's legislature, but it is, after all, a democratic body.

Some lawmakers resolutely oppose Taiwan's close defense ties with the United States, and others are intent on closer ties with Beijing. And Taipei's chaotic legislative process makes it difficult to shepherd budgets to approval.

But the disturbing suspicion remains that the White House is truly cowed by Beijing's fulminations. During her early July visit to Beijing, Condoleezza Rice, national security adviser, was treated to an earful of vitriol from Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing. The Chinese official laid down a policy of "Three No's": No U.S. sales of advanced arms to Taiwan and no U.S.-Taiwan military contacts; no official contacts between the United States and Taiwan; no U.S. support for Taiwan's participation in international organizations.

The Three No's declaration may have cooled White House eagerness to send the informal notification. If so, the National Security Council must consider how its message is read in Beijing: "If you threaten, we back down."

Further notification delay doesn't just delay adequate defense for Taiwan. It encourages even more insistent Chinese rhetoric on arms sales. *

John Tkacik is research fellow for China at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.

About the Author

John J. Tkacik, Jr. Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First appeared in the DefenseNews Weekly